In any game of free association Vanderbilt will usually produce millions. Or perhaps railroad millions. When Consuelo Vanderbilt’s grandfather died in 1885 he was the richest man in America, bequeathing a $200 million fortune. His daughter-in-law, Alva, was determined to use her part of the fortune to further her social ambitions. As Winston Churchill, who was to become Consuelo’s cousin-in-law, later remarked, “Wealth, taste and leisure can do these things but they do not bring happiness.” For eighteen year old Consuelo they brought misery.
But what exactly were Alva’s ambitions? Alva was an extraordinary mother, a control freak whose belief in a child’s total obedience to parents was to clash with her equally strong conviction that children should be independent-minded individuals. She confiscated Consuelo’s letters and thwacked her with a riding whip for even minor acts of delinquency; at the same time she lunched with her children almost every day for seventeen years, refusing (apparently) all social engagements in the middle of the day, so that she could hear their opinions. She devised a steel rod for the spine to ensure her daughter sat up straight, which she always did, but also encouraged physical independence through fishing and sailing.
What she could not do, however, was control her daughter’s feelings and the stunningly beautiful teenage Consuelo fell in love with the wrong man, Mr Winthrop Rutherfurd, a well-born but untitled layabout, famous only for his dog kennels. When the eligible but emotionally scarred ninth Duke of Marlborough came within Alva’s toils she was determined not to let him out.
Consuelo told her mother she believed she had a right to choose her own husband. Her mother, who had probably already ordered her daughter’s wedding dress in Paris and had once told her, ‘I don’t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told, refused to consent and claimed that further arguments might result in a fatal heart attack. She then precipitated the engagement by making an announcement herself to the newspapers. There was no going back. The cash-strapped Duke, known as Sunny not for his nature but for his title Sunderland, thought the infusion of Vanderbilt dollars, so desperately necessary for his run down Blenheim Palace, would be enough to make the marriage work. In words resonant of a later English aristocrat entering a relationship which he knew in advance was less than passionate, he let it be known that the marriage “had been arranged by his friends and those of Miss Vanderbilt.” Mackenzie Stuart is to be congratulated for not over-egging the comparisons here and elsewhere but letting them shout for themselves, as indeed they do.
And so on November 6th, 1895, the willowy young bride, who arrived heart stoppingly late at the Fifth Avenue Church, married her mother’s choice. The newspapers, only too aware this was no love-match, scarcely commented on her beautiful face or retrousse nose but on her swollen and black-rimmed eyes. The nearly $7,000 wedding dress had been described in detail some days beforehand. Superficially this wedding may have represented the pinnacle of Alva’s ambitions for her only daughter as well as for herself. For Consuelo the ordeal was only just beginning.
Mackenzie Stuart has written an intelligent, insightful and highly readable book not just about the gilded cage of aristocratic marriage at the turn of the last century – and this has to be the most gilded of them all – where, given how difficult divorce was for a woman, the key was all but thrown away. However, with more than an edge of sympathy for the manipulative Alva, she has also shown how two individuals can grow and develop. Consuelo was just 29 when she abandoned the distressing marriage and bravely made a life for herself in London for which she was ill-prepared. Soon, both Consuelo and Alva became prominent supporters of women’s rights. Alva took the line that beauty was an instrument of female power and introduced a range of helpful products including – one of her more enterprising initiatives – a “Victory” laxative.
To me, the mother-daughter relationship is more intriguing than the short-lived and desperately unhappy husband-wife relationship or even the extra-marital liaisons on all sides. Alva was able to square the way she had manipulated her daughter into marriage with a man she did not love by maintaining she had done it to fulfil her daughter’s potential. And it is undeniably true that Consuelo’s life as Duchess of Marlborough (and Alva’s as mother of the Duchess of Marlborough) was much more interesting and varied than it could ever have been as plain Mrs Rutherfurd.
When the Rota, the Catholic court in Rome, years later annulled the marriage a shocked Clementine Churchill wrote to her husband wondering how a marriage which had produced two sons could be annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. In fact the grounds were coercion, with Alva herself giving testimony. Both partners re-married; Consuelo to the Frenchman, Jacques Balsan, living more or less happily ever after, Sunny to another American, Gladys Deacon, famous for using paraffin wax to improve her profile, which turned her eventually into a terrifying monstrosity. This marriage was eventually as unhappy as his first.
Consuelo died in 1964 and, according to her wishes, was buried at Bladon, the Marlborough family plot outside Blenheim, albeit not alongside her ex- husband, but ample confirmation surely that this remarkably tolerant daughter understood only too well what her mother wanted out of life.
Anne Sebba is writing a biography of Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother